Louis C.K.: Live At The Beacon Theater will become available to stream or download at louisck.net at noon Eastern.
As assured a stand-up comic as Louis C.K. is (and there is certainly no one more assured than him working right now), I’m still amazed every time I watch a special of his and find it's not crushed by my massive expectations. His steady stream of solid-gold hour-long sets, followed by his genre-busting auteur genius half-hour show Louie means that at this point, even other stand-up comics at the top of their games speak about him in hushed tones. He’s also the rare comedian who can record a set and release it to the internet for five bucks, rather than rely on the dwindling pool of premium cable stations willing to fund a one-hour special. Live at the Beacon Theater dropped today at noon on louisck.net, and I’m sure fans will be rabidly snatching it up.
The show begins with a rather cute little over-the-shoulder camera following C.K. to the Beacon Theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the crowd mingling outside reacting with excitement as he meanders through them nonchalantly. Whatever the opposite of a rock-star entrance is, he’s making it, stepping out onstage before the house lights have gone down and reminding folks to turn off their cellphones. “There’s no opening act, fuck it, let’s start.”
It’s a particular kind of swagger, one he wears very well and one of his many, many gifts as a comedian. C.K’s comedy thrives on honesty; he’s not only laying bare his disintegrating marriage (in earlier specials) and now, his life as a divorced dad, but he’s peeling back layers of his brain to get to the sometimes-horrible psychological depths of everything. In one inspired bit, he says that whenever he flies first class and sees a soldier on the flight, he considers giving up his seat, and then congratulates himself just for having the thought. “Because, I’m in first class why? For being a professional asshole!” He never actually gives up the seat, of course, but “I was proud of myself for having thought of it!”
C.K’s past three specials found him in darker places, it seems. Shameless and Chewed Up ruminated on a marriage that was in the process of falling apart; this year’s Hilarious (filmed in 2009 but released as an album at the start of 2011) caught him right before the cult success of his HBO show, just as he was beginning to embark on life as a divorced dad. Now, C.K. is at the top of his game, and he knows it – during the bit about flying first class, he acknowledges that these days he does that a lot. “That's the way it is. I'm not like you. All the things you do, I do a better version of those things,” he says. But not for too much longer, he thinks – maybe a few more months. “But for now, it’s pretty good,” he says.
And there’s definitely a little less bite this time around, or perhaps an ever-so-slightly softer edge to his material. Now, considering that his show begins with him telling the 2,500 seat crowd that statistically at least one of them won’t survive the holiday season, and he later contemplates his grandmother’s corpse, donated to science, being “thrown down a chute” on a pile of bodies that medical students failed exams on, this isn’t exactly shiny happy stuff.
But C.K’s material feels a little less focused on personal shame. Other hour-long sets have concentrated a lot on his physical appearance, his troubles past and present with picking up women, his paranoia about being a terrible father, and so on. But a lot of C.K’s shame here seems to revolve around his developing cockiness – at one point he recalls dumping a rental car in a parking lot without returning it, getting on a plane, calling Hertz and basically getting his way, which makes him realize he could behave like that all the time.
But C.K. never lets those kinds of observations lie without taking them on from a broader angle as well. His “I Enjoy Being White” from Chewed Up remains one of the best observations of white guilt by anyone, funny or not, and here he starts off with colonists arriving in the New World and dubbing Native Americans “Indians” even though we knew perfectly well that they weren’t, and brings that all the way up to the present day without skipping a beat, presenting a conversation with God (aka an even less-restrained C.K.) without ever dipping into cliché.
That’s the finest of C.K’s skills as a comic, especially when you consider he records a new hour of comedy every year (two of those years have gone into the FX show). Every special, including this one, covers the same broad swathe of material. There’s going to be a long section about his kids, a long section about sex, a decent section about race and a fair amount of intensely personal examination. The order can change up a little, and there’ll be some other material too, but the themes stay broadly the same. Yet he keeps it all very fresh, and Live at the Beacon is no different in that regard.
I don’t want to spoil any more of the material, since it's up to viewers to go get the special, but suffice to say, C.K. opens strong and ends even stronger, and the energy never flags. Hilarious ran an impressive 90 minutes, but had its peaks and troughs – this is a more-focused hour, pared down of unnecessary material that C.K. has been putting online (that’s funny but was understandably excised) for the completest in us. The question a few may be asking is whether it’s worth the five bucks. I imagine most of you won’t need to hear this before you make your decision, but I’d say Live at the Beacon is utterly worth your time. There may come a point where C.K. is no longer operating at the height of his powers, but we haven’t reached it.